Death, Actually

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

illustration by Tom Ralston

Nobody cares about Clyde Barrow. As an impoverished kid coming of age in a West Dallas slum in the 1920s, after his family fled their failed farm in Ellis County, Texas, Clyde aptly learned through hunger, hardship, and sleeping under his family’s wagon that he did not matter in society’s eyes. Not only was he beneath being remembered; he was born forgotten

At a young age, his older brother Buck made ends meet by stealing chickens and scrap metal, garnering the attention of the law, and Clyde soon followed suit. Even though he wanted to make a living as a musician, one holiday he helped his older brother steal a truckload of turkeys. They were promptly caught, but Buck took the wrap. Clyde later honed his own burgeoning talent for stealing cars. As a hood on his own, Clyde wasn’t particularly remarkable, and unfortunately fit an easily dismissed profile: the police referred to him and his brother as “the Barrow Boys…a term that signified no-accounts.” As his crimes continued, Clyde was often caught and received increasingly serious sentences. Incarceration was supposed to help society isolate and ignore problems like Clyde, as the Dallas metropolis exploded with unencumbered growth, even into the fits of the Great Depression.

What does it take to cut through penurious silence, to matter to someone else, or to society? Clyde Barrow tasted immortality with his partner in crime, Bonnie Parker; their illicit love and deadly image transfigured their sad circumstances, elevating them from common hoods into American icons. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) simultaneously explains and capitalizes on its subjects’ notoriety by barging across state lines and dirt roads, tracing the couple’s attraction, and chasing the outlaws’ doom-spiral through infamy, ultimately rattling towards an inevitable and bloody demise.

While the film appropriates the contours and beats of the historical figures’ actual lives, the film uses techniques of elision and abstraction to create a starkly erotic Pop portrait of doomed lovers and the infinite, tender tension that holds them together.

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The film sets its foundation on what the ordering of the title suggests: Bonnie Parker is the sole reason anyone ever begins to remember Clyde Barrow. He would die another two-bit, unspectacular crook. However, with Bonnie, a novel and tragic mythos wove into the media representation of their fugitive exploits, aided by the aura of doomed lovers. Their early exploits were detailed in local news as Clyde’s operation, i.e., the ‘Barrow Gang,’ and Bonnie wasn’t even named in reports until later in their spree. While Bonnie and Clyde became known for murder and robbing banks, they were pretty petty thieves, robbing mostly from small establishments as they eked their way along while evading the law. On the whole, they were eminently forgettable and hapless thieves; they never really made a tremendous “score” robbing banks. However, Bonnie and Clyde made a much more remarkable heist in the realm of images, American publicity, and imagination, all of which the 1967 film explains, exploits, and expands.

As the film opens, we meet Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) lolling around, sullen and nude in her bedroom, convulsed by fits of boredom and frustration. An extreme close-up of her blood-red lips smacking shifts focus as she turns to gaze at her reflection in the mirror. The initial emphasis on her lips immediately places the film squarely in the trajectory and afterlife of 60s Pop: echoing Tom Wesselmann’s sultry mouth-shaped paintings before it, the Rolling Stones logo just after, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s opening eventually after that. The image-in-image overlap of Bonnie gazing into her own double brings to mind paintings like Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis, just as Faye Dunaway’s chilly chic places her within striking distance of Warhol Factory Superstars like Nico, Edie Sedgwick, even Candy Darling. Bonnie, her own stage-less superstar, flops down on her bed and begins to slap and repeatedly pound its brass frame. Dejected, she wraps her hands around the bars and pulls herself to peak through them. Here, she looks like a glowering child, and while she is extremely expressive throughout the film, we intimately meet her unflappable cool—a wild, sphinxlike quality1. We may know how she feels, but she is unreachable, inscrutable, beyond us. Bonnie’s ephemeral, tantalizing image sets the hook and foundation for the rest of the image-obsessed film.

In fact, the historical couple’s massive notoriety is entirely thanks to wild, sphinxlike images of Bonnie. A roll of undeveloped film was found in a camera left among possessions that the Barrow Gang had to abandon after a major raid and shootout on a garage apartment hideout in Joplin, Missouri in 1933, in which two lawmen died, and the gang escaped. This film contained essentially private images of the couple, family snaps2 showing them on a roadside clowning, posing, and hamming it up for the camera:

  • In one photo, Bonnie “holds up” Clyde: she cradles a shotgun with her right arm as she reaches toward him with her left hand, fingers grasping for the pistol in his waistband. 
  • In another photo, Clyde actually holds Bonnie up in front of a stolen car: she is cradled in his left arm, lifted off of the ground, her hands on his shoulder and chest, her cheek resting on his head as they both smile, his hat pinched between his fingers of his free right hand, which dangles by his side.
  • Another photo shows the couple locked in an embrace: Bonnie’s back is to the camera, her right foot planted in the ground next to his and her left heel raised, her body lilting across Clyde’s sturdy frame, his hands splayed up and down her spine, fingering a cigar in his left hand as he leans in and they hold a kiss.
  • The most notorious photos, however, show Bonnie on her own in front of the stolen car: in one, she stands upright, her right hand on her hips, elbow back, and cigar held between her fingers, head back as she looks at the camera; in the other, more ‘shocking’ and sphinxlike photo, the cigar is clenched between her lips as she glares at the camera, her black cap tilted back on her head, her left foot lifted up on the bumper, her left arm draped on a headlight, as her right arm is propped out, holding a revolver pointed at the ground and held close to her cocked-out hips.

The images were picked up by local media, sent across a newswire, and the couple were immediately plastered in newsreels, crime magazines, and newspapers across the country. Local coverage gave way to national obsession inflamed by Bonnie’s intimations. Bonnie, a woman standing in front of a car in 1930’s America, may constitute what Roland Barthes calls the studium of this photograph, or the information one recognizes to understand and place the photo. However, her gun, her cigar, her unladylike pose: these elements may constitute the punctum, or what pricks the viewer.3 These elements absolutely pricked the sensibilities of 1930’s America. Latching onto these striking details, the American public became sodden with its image of a deadly moll, hellbent on murder, a fiend only beholden to her gangster boyfriend, Clyde Barrow. What’s more, this image sold papers, magazines, and tickets, circulating wildly and making the couple famous.

While Bonnie Parker’s image intrigued and excited America, Clyde Barrow intrigued and excited her. In the film, Clyde (Warren Beatty) immediately captures her interest, even as he is attempting to steal her mother’s car. She calls to him, still nude, from her window, “Hey, boy,” and runs down the stairs, hastily dressing, to intercept the would-be thief. From there, they begin a merry-go-round game of cat-and-mouse, as they flirt and challenge each other, taking turns taunting, teasing, and testing. Every tawdry detail of Clyde’s life turns Bonnie on, especially when he admits to committing armed robbery and landing a stint in prison. 

On Main street, they guzzle Cokes together, the clear bottles shining as if surfaces in a Rosenquist painting—sweet Pop confection, an easy escape from the dull town. The camera focuses on Clyde, greedily gulping from the bottle, sun glinting off of the glass. Bonnie looks up at him, the bottle lingering at her lips as she watches him drink and simultaneously masticate a match stick between his teeth. Her open-mouth grin grazes her bottle’s top as her sly eyes track Clyde’s every move; she challenges him on details about his armed robbery. He responds by pulling out his revolver and surreptitiously placing it on his lap. She gasps and runs her fingers up his steel piece, but immediately taunts that he wouldn’t have the gumption to use it. Clyde breathes in and takes up the dare, striding across the street into a small shop, exiting a moment later with a fistful of cash and a clerk hot on his tail. Clyde fires a shot across the street to keep the clerk at a distance. They steal a car and make a quick escape.

Bonnie is in rapture the entire ride, ravishing Clyde as he tries to drive. He swerves on dirt roads, eventually pulls into a shady grove and hastily parks the car. She attempts to overtake him in the driver’s seat, but he admonishes her to slow down and bumps his head as he escapes the car. Her wounded visage follows him outside as she lights a cigarette and he explains that he is not much of a “loverboy.” While initially she is repelled and confused (“Your advertising is just dandy. Folks never guess you don’t have anything to sell.”), he pulls her back into his orbit by promising more than what any jerk on any corner could offer her. He promises her an escape, fame, a high-class lifestyle, transcendence as her birthright in manic, almost preacher-like intonation. She stammers, “Hey, when’d you figure all that up?” Without missing a beat, he swats a fly and replies, “The minute I saw you.”

Their attraction is born out of disgusted disillusion with their circumstances; their love is born out of mutual need. Bonnie’s desire will not abate, and the erotic tension between the two unconsummated lovers will stretch until the final minutes of the picture. You would be hard-pressed to find a more compact, effective, and alluring opening ten minutes of a film, one that perfectly foreshadows and counterbalances the movie’s shocking final sequence.

This opening enlists us as silent accomplices and takes us along for the ride as Bonnie and Clyde make their escape as a bona fide couple. While the audience nurtures empathy for these beautiful and foolish creatures, their desperate attraction and unquenchable thirst plunge them into hardscrabble realities of fugitive existence and life on the lam. It’s worth taking another moment to detail just what they believe they are escaping from. Yes, they’re fleeing their circumstances, seeking some sort of transfiguration, but the most effective filmic representation of their oppressor is Depression-era silence: utter, desperate silence—the malign quiet of walking death—the desolate, dead-end wind that whispers how wholly worthless you are—how little you matter and how your hope will be slowly strangled by a banal, opaque force.

Silence pervades the film and is only punctuated by hillbilly banjo music, hot bluegrass firing off in scenes of passion (the frustrated car ride detailed above, during heist scenes and getaways, etc), or the explosion of gunfire, made as loud as humanly possible. In an address to the American Film Institute (AFI) before a screening of the film, Warren Beatty shared that he emulated the gunshot sounds from Shane by firing guns into garbage cans to maximize the blast heard onscreen.4 Clyde even broaches the silence as they walk through Main street in the film’s opening:

Clyde: Hey, what y’all do for a good time around here? Listen to the grass grow?

Bonnie: I guess you had a lot more fun in state prison.

You really can hear the grass growing in the soundtrack, especially as the film begins in stark silence. The titles designed by Wayne Fitzgerald herald the opening of the film with deadly effectiveness and eerie quiet. The ominous, black screen is punctuated with the click of a camera as glaring as a gunshot; a Depression-era portrait jumps into view. As the camera continues to shoot and click at irregular intervals, new pictures jump to the screen, continuing to punctuate the black silence with portraits and reportage. Slyly mixed in are photos of the stars to insinuate themselves into the folds of history. As the names of the stars launch onto the silent screen, they fade from cream-colored font into deepening red.

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes overtly emphasizes the photograph’s inherent connection to death:

Ultimately, what I am seeking in the photograph taken of me (the “intention” according to which I look at it) is Death: Death is the eidos of that Photograph. Hence, strangely, the only thing that I tolerate, that I like, that is familiar to me, when I am photographed, is the sound of the camera. For me, the Photographer’s organ is not his eye (which terrifies me) but his finger: what is linked to the trigger of the lens, to the metallic shifting of the plates (when the camera still has such things). I love these mechanical sounds in an almost voluptuous way, as if, in the Photograph, they were the very thing—and the only thing—to which my desire clings, their abrupt click breaking through the mortiferous layer of the Pose.

Imagine back to the undeveloped roll of film found in Bonnie and Clyde’s Joplin hideout. Consider the “mortiferous,” or fatal, layer of pose as Bonnie and Clyde leaned into exaggerations of their own representations as outlaws and thus inflamed the public’s imagination through the images’ dissemination in mass media. The “eidos” or essence of those photographs would certainly be Death. Consider the sound of the camera, connected to the “trigger of the lens.” Imagine Bonnie and Clyde’s impending death by ambush nearly a year after the photos were found. Being seen is terrifying; being shot is “voluptuous,” the sound being the only thing to which “desire clings.” In their thirst for fame and notoriety, Bonnie and Clyde find their own Liebestod5 in voluptuous transfiguration via image. The sound of the camera lacerates the pallor of silence, giving desire a place to cling to, if only for a moment, before the “mechanical” sound gives way to actual gunshots.6 Despite their voluptuous thirst and desire, the outlaws’ lives are still pocked with tedium even after they make their escape into a life of lawless abandon. Bonnie rarely has a moment alone with Clyde, she is often stuck amongst the rest of the Barrow Gang: at odds with Blanche (Estelle Parsons), the wife of Clyde’s big brother Buck (Gene Hackman), or sharing a bed or bedroom with their mechanic/driver/flunkey, C.W. (Michael J. Pollard). Even when she has a moment alone with Clyde, her attempted sexual overtures only end in abrupt frustration. There is some ambiguous tension about whether Clyde can’t or won’t sustain his passion—the film toys around the idea that he could be unable and/or unwilling.7 The heists and robberies become the only substitution for sexual release—these adrenaline-soaked escapades rip through the “mortiferous layer of Pose” by upending the quotidian quiet of Depression-era America. There is a carnivalesque quality to these scenes, in the Bakhtinian sense of the word: established order is flipped on its head and chaos runs amok in the streets as the bandits smash, grab, and make a run for it.

This carnivalesque quality lends the movie a comic quality, something the film was criticized for, especially in contrast with its shocking brutality. Some of the comic elements simply illustrate how hapless the thieves actually were. The scene where C.W. absurdly opts to parallel park a car during a bank stick-up only to be stuck once Bonnie and Clyde attempt to escape is adapted from an actual event involving John Dillinger and his crew. These foibles would be hilarious, should their outcome be less deadly. The delay in escape allows a clerk from the bank to accost the getaway car—Clyde panics and shoots him point-blank in the face through the closed passenger window—cracked glass, blood, and the clerk’s mutilated face punctuate a spectacularly brutal and graphic scene. The body drops, and the getaway car swerves away as a firetruck speeds into town, cops rush in from behind, and a shootout ensues. The film cuts to a darkened movie theater where Golddiggers 1933 plays to a packed house. “We’re in the Money” adds a diegetic commentary on the now-flush bandits who are laying low after officially getting blood on their hands.

To our eyes, nearly one hundred years after the fact, there is something tragically comic about the dinky 1930s vintage cars bouncing around shitty dirt roads to the sounds of rambling banjos; this was true even in 1967 for the film’s initial audiences. In some ways, it is a wonder that cars even took hold as personal devices, since the film makes it seem that they were so simple to steal. Historically, Clyde did display talent for hot-wiring and stealing fast, fancy cars, but there were some serious design flaws and personal habits (i.e., keeping keys in the ignition) that aided and abetted his heists. Bonnie and Clyde’s comedic overtures culminate in a car-jacking scene featuring an appearance by Gene Wilder, cast by Beatty in his first film, as Eugene Grizzard (via Wilder’s pronunciation, “Grizz-ARD”). 

Eugene is making handsy moves on his sweetheart, Velma Davis (Evans Evans) on a porch when the Barrow Gang sneaks up and steals his new car. Wilder expertly employs his signature exasperation as Eugene and Velma chase down the bandits, not knowing what they’re actually getting into. As they back off, the Barrow Gang decides to go back, catch, and kidnap them. Once they’re taken, Clyde asks “I, uh, expect you’ve been reading about us?” Simultaneously, Eugene admits, “Yes,” as Velma abjures, “Oh, no!” Throughout the scene, Wilder exudes hilarious, sweaty, and controlled panic as he oozes ironic niceties to keep the bandits cordial. Bonnie assures him he’s safe, as he’s not the law, but “folks, just like us.” As the kidnapping progresses, the atmosphere becomes much friendlier: Buck shares his stale jokes, and Eugene and Velma share tidbits about their life. Eventually, everyone is sharing burgers as they ride through the night, eat, and make chit-chat. Everyone is laughing and smiling when Bonnie asks, “Hey, what do you do, anyhow?” Eugene answers, still half giggling, “I’m an undertaker.” The ride is abruptly over. Bonnie demands that Clyde stop the car and abandon their new companions. His profession is a bridge too far; Bonnie is sickened and upset. The rest of the film hurtles toward the gang’s violent end.

This deliberate abruptness puts the audience on edge, and reflects great orchestration by the entire filmmaking team. David Newman and Robert Benton’s script, Arthur Penn’s direction, Burnett Guffey’s cinematography, the ensemble’s acting, and Dede Allen’s editing repeatedly lull the viewer into an empathetic stance, and lets one lower their guard. In this way, the inevitable shocks seem more jarring, the brutality more senseless, and the bullet-riddled, blood-splattered tragedy more enduring. While one might dismiss the juxtaposition as lurid entertainment value, the film uses the problem of comedy to accentuate the doomed-lovers’ edge and pull. Even though they are outlaws, violent criminals, we are deeply in their pocket by the time they are ambushed on a roadside. And while one may argue the film has a problem of comedy, this is exactly the tactic that future filmmakers would adopt, merging brutality with laughs, whether the Coen Brothers, Sam Raimi, or Quentin Tarantino.8 This merging challenges the entire notion of escapism and in this way Bonnie and Clyde, as icons, represent a real problem of American entertainment. Their image sold newspapers and magazines, and outlets profited off of the sensational shadow cast by their brutal career.

The public looked to the real-life Bonnie and Clyde’s escapades as a kind of tabloid fantasy, much in the same way people argue that common people wrapped in troubles flock to motion pictures for succor. Some may argue that theaters exist in a magical space, away from harsh realities. However, films aren’t mere escape vehicles that we car-jack to escape from reality—they are more like provocative maps that prick feeling and demonstrate possibility in our lives; reflecting on them helps us live in and among the world. No theater is an island and even as films are fiction, they are useful.

There is a useful rub between fictions as they refract, overlap, and play against each other. Bonnie Parker was a poet. Her incessantly reworked “Suicide Sal” was found among the abandoned possessions and undeveloped film in the aftermath of the Joplin raid, a poem she began in a notebook in jail. As with her photographic image, the aura of a death-wielding poet pricked the sensibilities of the American public. On a rainy night, near the end of the film, Bonnie shares a poem with Clyde as they huddle together in a car. She calls it “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde,” and it is taken verbatim from “The Trail’s End,” an actual Bonnie Parker poem.9 Clyde admires her writing and says he will send it to a newspaper to be published. The scene dissolves as Bonnie’s voice continues the poem and a lawman reads it in a newspaper clipping. Her reading continues as that scene dissolves into a breezy, sun-filled day. Bonnie and Clyde sit on a blanket in a field and she finishes, reading directly from a newspaper:

Some day they’ll go down together
they’ll bury them side by side.
To few it’ll be grief,
to the law a relief
but it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.

At this moment, Clyde is overcome with emotion by the fact that Bonnie told his story. All of the promises he made to her in the opening of the film, she has fulfilled for him. “You made me somebody they’re going to remember,” he coos to her, staring into her eyes. He cups his hands around her face, runs his fingers through her hair, and leans her back onto the blanket in an all-encompassing embrace. The image bears a striking resemblance to the undeveloped “embrace” photograph found after the Joplin raid, except in this case, remarkably horizontal. The newspaper drifts away in the wind and the jubilant heist music plays in the soundtrack. In minutes, they’ll be bullet-riddled corpses, but now they have each other, fully. 

Bonnie and Clyde confronts us point-blank with death’s unabated ambush into oblivion, but offers solace in the fact that you would be fortunate to find a partner in crime to escape the suffocating contours of an otherwise circumscribed life. Images exceed your ephemeral heart and illuminate a voluptuous path as you go down together.

  1. Anne Garréta’s erotic novel Sphinx treats the ephemerality of a dead lover’s body exceptionally well, an apt juxtaposition to Faye Dunaway’s performance in the opening scene of Bonnie and Clyde: “Ephemeral, this body was undeniably ephemeral. I was overwhelmed by despair, vague and distant; I barely discerned the cause, buried as it must have been in ancient memory, abruptly rekindling and fighting to return, to take hold and actualize itself in a vision. Ephemeral—a word that I heard pronounced as a murder, as an image before my eyes, floating, tearing the veil; a living and funereal abrasion coming to break on the surface of anamnesis.” This anamnesis, or imagistic remembrance of Bonnie brings her back to life onscreen, anew, as Dunaway, only to be murdered again. Knowing her inevitable end makes us (the audience) complicit in this ephemeral theater, a word “pronounced as murder.”
  2. Jo Spence writes compellingly in Cultural Sniping about identity, role, and performance in family photos. By interrogating “family snaps,” in the chapter “Interrogating the Family Album,” Spence comes to the following: “I have long since ceased to look for idealized images of myself, accepting the spectrum and variety the camera has offered. I see also that there is no single, coherent self, but a multiplicity of selves which are positioned in the world in a variety of ways, within a range of power dynamics. I have also been able to generalize from my understanding of myself that nothing is fixed, natural or unchangeable.” This multiplicity of selves helps us move beyond a monolithic reading of Bonnie and Clyde’s undeveloped photos. While they were mounted in mass media to vilify, the photos demonstrate more complicated “selves,” and the film makes good use of this multiplicity in a scene where Beatty and Dunaway recreate some of the iconic shots.
  3. Lawmen were more likely to have been pricked by the clearly visible license plate number on the car (587 956), making it easier to track the fleeing bandits. Bonnie and Clyde would learn from this mistake and subsequently covered the license plate in future photographs.
  4. At a London premiere, he noticed how pitifully and unexpectedly quiet the shots were. When he went to confront the projectionist, they showed him a ‘corrective chart’ where they knew when and how much to dip the sound, saying, “I’ve saved you… You know, I haven’t seen a picture this badly mixed since Shane.”
  5. Liebestod, or love-death, comes from Tristan und Isolde, an opera by Richard Wagner. The concept of love-death points to the erotic bond and transfiguration in death between doomed lovers, as in Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, even arguably Thelma and Louise.
  6. This conflation between camera shot and gunshot is illustrated with uncanny horror in a photo of Blanche Barrow, the wife of Clyde’s older brother Buck. Blinded by glass in a shootout, she is taken into custody. The photo captures her screaming in terror as she mistakes the flash from a camera as the shot of a gun.
  7. David Newman and Robert Benton’s script intentionally simplifies and omits details of Bonnie and Clyde’s actual history and combines some elements that fit the narrative more than facts might. In this way, the film is intentionally vague about Clyde’s experiences in jail; his actual experience was much more harrowing than the scant titles and information via dialog would suggest. While impotence isn’t recorded in Clyde’s actual history, his unwillingness in the film becomes more complicated to parse when one learns that Clyde was repeatedly raped in prison by Ed Crowder. Clyde eventually murdered Crowder with a lead pipe, but Aubrey Scalley, another inmate, ultimately took the blame.
  8. In remarks to the American Film Institute, Quentin Tarantino credits Bonnie and Clyde as not only predating but also catalyzing the “Silver Age of Hollywood” that would develop in the 1970’s, what he calls, “THE cinema of Hollywood.”
  9. While “The Trail’s End,” is a crude example of what a poem might be, it was wildly successful in inspiring other notable and effective works. For example, Serge Gainsbourg adapted the poem as an apology to Bridget Bardot after a terrible first date. In one night, he wrote “Bonnie and Clyde” as well as “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” and ignited a “fiercely romantic and intensely fiery love affair.”